Here surely, is an English Hero
- Jeremy Paxman
A figure from a different age, Charles Burgess Fry was born in 1872 to a declining upper-middle-class family. All his life he played the role of the traditional English Gentleman while striving to earn a living. He succeeded in this, largely because he was a man of extraordinary energy and talent.
Among his many sporting, academic and diplomatic achievements Fry:
- Graduated from Oxford
- Edited his own magazine
- Followed careers in teaching and journalism
- Worked with the League Of Nations and played sport as a Gentleman Amateur1 competing in test cricket, association football, rugby union and athletics alongside professionals.
Although he excelled in many fields, he often struggled for money. At Oxford he resorted to nude modelling to make enough money to cover the subscriptions to the sporting clubs and societies he was expected to be a part of.
Throughout his life Fry dealt with the pain and torment of mental illness, with the episodes becoming more pronounced as he got older.
The epitome of an all-round sportsman, Fry is probably best-known for his cricketing career with Sussex and England, but, ever the nimble man, he was reportedly able to leap backwards from a stationary standing position onto a mantelpiece. Had this been a competitive sport, it would be fair to say that Fry would probably have been ranked number one.
However, due to his status in the various sports as a Gentleman Amateur, his opportunities were restricted: for example, despite his outstanding performances he was never eligible to tour Australia with the test cricket team.
A right-handed batsman, and in his early years a good, albeit controversial, fast-bowler, Fry captained the Gentlemen, Sussex, Hampshire and England teams scoring over 30,000 first-class runs averaging over 50 a game: unsurprisingly, as captain Fry never lost a single Test Match. Incredibly he was released by Surrey as a young man, a decision that they were sure to regret over the next 20 years.
In his cricketing career he scored 94 first-class centuries. These included an unprecedented six consecutive centuries in first-class matches in 1901. After his retirement from the game he was once again invited to captain England, but declined, pointing out that appointing a 49-year-old to captain the team would not provide a long-term solution to their problems2.
During his time at Sussex County Cricket Club between 1894 and 1908, he developed a batting partnership with the future Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, better known as the outstanding cricketer Prince Ranjitsinhji. This partnership created a friendship which would last into the 1920s.
Even today, a century after Fry's cricketing career was at its height, he still tops Hampshire's all-time batting averages.
Fry's sporting achievements also extended into the field of Association Football. This was remarkable because he was a gentleman and an amateur in a largely professional game. He learned his football at Repton School and was awarded his Oxford University Blue for soccer. He also played for an England XI against Canada although the status of the game appears to be in doubt.
In 1894 he joined the famous amateur club The Corinthians; although extremely proud of his amateur status, he decided that entering the professional game would enhance his chances of international honours. He chose Southampton as they were not only the leading lights in the Southern League but also because their ground, The Dell, was located conveniently close to his home. He had originally been registered as a player in 1898 but his début was delayed until 26 December 1900 when he eventually took to the pitch against Tottenham Hotspur.
Fry never really fitted in at Southampton, heckled by the crowds as a 'shamateur' and causing professionals to complain because he was depriving one of their own of a place in the game. He was picked for England for the match against Ireland on 9 March, 1901, although this was almost certainly only because it was played at Southampton.
In the following season (1901 - 1902) Fry played in the FA Cup Final against Sheffield United and although he had his moments in the cup run, his tackling ability was questionable. Fry played in all eight of the cup games for Southampton during the season but only in nine of the league matches3.
Losing his place in defence to better professional players, he played twice as a centre-forward, but Southampton had become impatient at his lack of availability and released him. He made his début for Portsmouth on 21 January, 1903, but was injured soon afterwards leading to his retirement from Association Football at the age of 31.
For anyone else, being a renowned cricketer and footballer would be enough, but not for Fry. In 1893, he equalled the then world long jump record of 23 feet 6 ½ inches (7.17 metres) which was held by American, Charles Reber.
In 1894 at the world's first international athletics match between Oxford and Yale held at White City, Fry won both the long jump and 100 yards. While the American sprinters started in a new crouched position on all fours, Fry controversially insisted that he be allowed to suspend one foot in front of the starting line, hovering in mid air, above the ground. This small advantage appears to have been just enough to allow Fry to get ahead and win the race.
Fry also played Rugby Union for the University of Oxford, Blackheath and the Barbarians. He would also have played for England at rugby were he not for injured at the time.
Fry won a scholarship to Oxford after coming top of the class in his college entrance exam and was appointed to the role of senior scholar. Although recognised as being academically brilliant, due to his deteriorating state of mental health, he graduated from Wadham College with a Gentleman's Fourth.
After graduating from Oxford, Fry became a teacher at Charterhouse, and later, Director of the Training Ship Mercury in Hampshire, a nautical school primarily designed to prepare boys for service in the Royal Navy. His future wife Beatrice had taken on the school as her life's work and although he took much of the praise for her achievements, she was the one who ran the school and influenced every aspect of his career.
As a teacher Fry taught a variety of subjects including the Classics, Philosophy, Modern Languages, Physics and Naval History. During his time teaching at Charterhouse, Fry also brought national and international cricketers to the school to play against the CB Fry XI.
His cricketing career was in its autumn when the First World War broke out. During the war Fry attained the rank of Commander in respect of his work on the training ship Mercury. For the rest of his life Fry was very proud of his rank and often used it in private correspondence. Some critics point out, however, that Fry had an extremely safe and comfortable war stationed at his naval academy, compared to his former pupils that were giving their lives at Jutland and on the Western Front.
At the end of the war and after his retirement from his sporting career, Fry worked with the Indian delegation at the League of Nations and stood (unsuccessfully) three times as a Liberal candidate for Parliament. While a delegate at the League Of Nations Fry was offered the throne of Albania - an opportunity which he did turn down.
In 1934, he met Adolf Hitler and Joachim von Ribbentrop, and failed to convince the latter that Nazi Germany should take up Test Cricket. He did, however, invite members of the Hitler Youth to the Mercury training ship and Fry continued to express enthusiasm for the movement up until 1938. This inevitably led to much criticism in his final years despite all of his previous work for the Royal Navy. He retired from his position at Mercury in 1950 at the grand old age of 78.
Fry's marriage, to the much older Beatrice, was dominated by Charles Hoare. He was the main benefactor of Mercury and allegedly the father of her three children, one born shortly after she married Fry.
In the 1920s, Fry's mental health started to deteriorate severely. He had already suffered a breakdown during his final year at Oxford and throughout his cricketing career it was noted that he was sometimes unsound under pressure. In the late 1920s while in India, he had a major breakdown and became thoroughly paranoid. For the rest of his life, he dressed in bizarrely unconventional clothes and had frighteningly eccentric interludes, which included running naked along Brighton Beach.
He developed a fear of Indians, including his friend and former colleague Ranjitsinhji. He did recover enough to become a popular writer on cricket (and other sports), and even in his 50s, entertained hopes of becoming a Hollywood actor, a dream which he never fulfilled.
Fry died in Hampstead in 1956 aged 84 and will forever be remembered as the 'grand old man of sport'.